MILTON — The abortion debate raging at the national and state levels trickled down to the local level on Monday as the Santa Rosa County Commission took on a resolution that could declare the county Florida's first "pro-life sanctuary."
After more than two hours of public forum input, most of which was from residents who were in favor of the resolution, the board voted 4-1 to put the resolution on Thursday's regular agenda.
Board Chairman Don Salter, who represents District 3, was the lone "no" vote. Salter —who described himself as a pro-life Republican — blocked the resolution from being placed on Monday's agenda, saying the item was too controversial and was out of the county's purview.
"We represent all the people of Santa Rosa County. My county cellphone is full of emails from people who do not want this imposed on them," Salter told the News Journal. "So everybody's got their own opinion. I know who I am and I know what I stand for."
Despite the item not being on Monday's agenda, dozens of residents showed up to voice their opinion on the matter in the public forum.
Some residents, like James Stephens of Milton, condemned Salter for refusing to put the item on the agenda.
"The defense of life is no controversial topic, Chairman Salter. It is a matter of justice versus injustice, righteousness versus wickedness," Stephens said. "Your cowardice to put the resolution on the agenda should be repugnant to all constituents."
Cindy Roberts, the executive director of Life Options Clinic in Milton, a pregnancy resource center, said she is on the "battle lines day in and day out" of the abortion debate.
The board approved 4-1 (Salter says no) to move the resolution to Thursday’s regular agenda to make SRC a "pro-life sanctuary." https://t.co/KYXu0jqAxR— Annie Blanks (@AnniePNJ) February 10, 2020
"What I would love to see is Santa Rosa County become a pro-life sanctuary, just like Life Options Clinic is," Roberts said. "Where women can come and receive the help and the hope that they are seeking. ... When our county celebrates the lives of sea turtles over the lives of unborn children, it is heartbreaking to me."
But Joannie Parks, who lives in Navarre, said the county shouldn't be taking a stance on an issue as personal as abortion.
"It's not the job of our elected commissioners to promote personal, social, women's health issues (or) political party views, as county policy or county mindset or county business," Parks said. "The Board of County Commissioners do not speak for, or represent, any of my political or social issue views on any level, whether I agree with your views or not."
According to the Agency for Health Care Administration, which collects data on statewide abortion numbers, in 2019, there were 71,908 abortions performed in the state of Florida. Of those, 160 of the women were from Santa Rosa County.
Santa Rosa County does not have an abortion clinic. The closest clinic is in neighboring Pensacola.
The debate eventually waded into the semantics of the resolution itself, which symbolically would support banning abortion at all, under any circumstances.
Salter and District 5 Commissioner Lane Lynchard said they'd support allowing abortion if a woman is raped, which drew loud "boos" from the crowd.
"I don't want to condemn that 15-year-old girl who is raped and impregnated and then chooses to have an abortion. I don't think that's a statement that this board should make, maybe I'm in the minority," Lynchard said.
"There's not a person sitting up here today who is not pro-life. We're all pro-life," Salter said. "However, if my wife (or) my daughter is viciously raped by some criminal, that woman should have the right to decide if she's going to carry that baby or not.
"(This resolution) is politically motivated and I'm not going to support it based on the fact that people have a right to choose," he added.
District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole, who introduced the resolution to be placed on the agenda in the first place, made a motion to have the resolution added to Thursday's agenda after some tweaks by county attorney Roy Andrews.
Andrews expressed reservation about some of the language in the resolution, including a line that said the Supreme Court had "abused its proper function of judicial review and supplanted it with the unconstitutional theory judicial supremacy in order to legislate and impose its policy preferences upon the people."
Andrews said he didn't feel comfortable with the county declaring the Supreme Court illegitimate.
Cole told the News Journal after the meeting he didn't believe the abortion issue is above the county's purview, because government is supposed to trickle up from the local level, to Tallahassee, to the federal government.
He also said he felt like abortion rights laws were getting out of hand.
"We keep seeing declines on our gun laws. They start small and they keep building," he said. "Well, this abortion thing has started small. At first it was first and second trimester, then it got extended to third trimester, now we're even hearing of live birth abortions during birth."
There are no laws in the United States allowing for "live birth abortions." Most states ban abortions after 20 weeks, and some ban them at "viability," or when the fetus can survive outside the uterus on its own. Florida bans abortions after 24 weeks.
Last week, the Florida Senate passed a parental consent abortion bill, which would require minors to receive consent from a parent, guardian or court before having an abortion.
The bill is expected to pass in the House and then be approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners will take up the resolution again at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Tiger Point Community Center.
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.